Ruth E. Tropea, a Baltimore ecdysiast, who as “Trudine” thrilled audiences during the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, as the “Queen of Quiver,” died Sept. 9 of Alzheimer’s disease at Lorien Health in Columbia. She was 100.
The former Ruth Elizabeth Scheihing, the daughter of John Scheihing, a Lexington Market butcher, and his wife, Laura Scheihing, a homemaker, was born in Baltimore and raised on McHenry Street.
As a child, she studied ballet, and while attending Forest Park High School, began “entering dance contests,” said Doris Scheihing, her sister-in-law, a Catonsville resident.
She briefly worked as a telephone operator for the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co.'s Gilmor and Edmondson exchanges before leaving Baltimore and moving to Atlantic City, New Jersey, and later New Orleans, where she became a dancer in “nightclub ballets,” The Evening Sun reported in a 1947 article.
In the Baltimore of that era, The Baltimore Sun and Evening Sun referred to such tenderloin nightclubs as “cabarets” in news stories.
Her career as a “striptease artist,” as The Evening Sun so politely described it, began in 1942 at the Capitol Theater in Toledo, Ohio, when she misunderstood an advertisement the theater had posted seeking to hire “a strip woman.” She reported to the theater thinking she was going to be a ballet girl.
“After her first turn both she and the house realized their mistake and were sorry for it,” The Evening Sun reported. "I stank and the audience all but told me. I didn’t know a bump from a grind. I hardly knew what a G-string was. Everything happened. I even fell and got my gown caught in the footlights.”
With encouragement from theater management, Mrs. Tropea turned humiliation into success, and within two years had become an acknowledged “mistress of the striptease.”
“She got her name, the ‘Queen of Quiver,’ because she could stand in one spot and without moving back and forth, get her whole body to quiver,” her sister-in-law said. “And she also had the prettiest and brightest eyes.”
“So far as is known, she is the first Baltimore striptease to make the ‘big wheel’ of burlesque,” the newspaper reported. “Her star billing, Trudine, was evolved from her old nightclub name, Trudy Jones.”
She explained that her working attire in addition to a black G-string included a net bra and sandals. When she performed at the old Gayety Burlesk Theatre on Baltimore’s famed Block, the theater had rules governing what the girls could wear as costumes.
“You have to wear a net bra in this house,” she said. “Most houses permit you to flash nude, but here you have to wear a bra.”
Mrs. Tropea told a reporter she always took umbrage when someone in the audience yelled the old burlesque chant: "Take it off!”
“I don’t know why, but it freezes me,” she said.
When she played the Skyline Room at the Chanticleer at North Charles and Eager streets, she was billed as “Queen of Quiver. Baltimore’s Own.”
She performed with feathers, no doubt inspired by Sally Rand, a burlesque dancer whose work with ostrich feathers turned her into a national sensation and made her into one of the most sought after performers at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.
“Please don’t come to the Chanticleer tonite unless you promise not to try to buy Trudine’s feathers. Trudine can’t do her Fantasy in Feathers without them ... and besides ... she’ll catch cold,” said a 1949 ad in The Sun, while another promised, “It’s Trudine and her Fantasy in Feathers. You’ve never seen such an exotic act and probably never will see another as interesting as Trudine.”
Mrs. Tropea didn’t always perform frontally. After entering the stage, she would suddenly turn her back to the audience.
“Wrecking a first rule of acting, Trudine turns her back to the audience and shrugs her gown down to her waist, stripping a shapely pair of shoulders. The ravished rule of acting is never turn your back on the audience. Only a back like Trudine’s can get away with it,” observed The Evening Sun.
She said one of the hazards of the profession was having to perpetually watch her weight, which she kept at 116 pounds.
She had to conform to a grueling schedule that included three shows a day, two matinees and an evening performance seven days a week. Her working day began at 12:30 p.m. and lasted until 8 p.m., and after a half-hour break, continued again from 8:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., she explained to the newspaper.
Mrs. Tropea was ever mindful that first impressions in the burlesque business were lasting ones.
“And if you think a striptease is what you DON’T wear, you’re wrong again!” she told The Evening Sun. “Your first impression is half your act.”
Mrs. Tropea’s couturiers were Senor Rai, and later Rex Huntington, who spent 61 years designing clothes for strippers that “sooner or later come off,” The Wall Street Journal reported in a 1991 article.
“When Trudine the Shimmy Queen wanted a costume from a fox fur, Mr. Huntington fashioned a suit whose centerpiece was the fox’s head affixed to a G-string,” the newspaper reported.
“And we put batteries in it so the fox’s head would light up,” he told the newspaper. “The owner of the theater took that number out right away. He didn’t like that head lighting. He thought it was kind of revolting.”
Of his craft, Mr. Huntington explained that “I made the girls look good. They said the way I made things I took away their hips and gave them busts.”
Other local venues where Mrs. Tropea performed included the famed Two O’Clock Club, where she became a close friend of Blaze Starr, who for decades was the reigning burlesque Queen of The Block.
“She played the burlesque circuit up and down the East Coast, plus Canada, and cities like New York, Chicago and Atlantic City,” her sister-in-law said of Mrs. Tropea.
She began performing in Las Vegas in the 1940s, when she opened at the El Rancho Hotel and Nightclub as a headliner in 1949. And while working in Las Vegas, she became friends with “a young Liberace, Dean Martin, when he was with Martin & Lewis, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., whom she always called ‘Junior,’ ” her sister-in-law said.
In 1966, actor Roddy McDowall, who was also a close friend, presented Mrs. Tropea with a copy of John S. Springer’s book, “All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!” with the inscription: “To my all talking, singing, and dancing Ruth, with all my love Trudi, and kisses. Roddy.”
By the early 1960s, she quit the road and retired.
“My husband, Donald, who was Ruth’s brother, was never a big fan of her career, but she’d give you the shirt off of her back,” Mrs. Scheihing said. “She had a very kind and giving heart. She was very kind and considerate to those she met on the road, and if someone needed something, she gave them what they needed.”
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In 1979, after several years of dating, she married Joseph Tropea, a carpenter, who had been in one of her nightclub audiences. The couple then settled into a quiet private life in New Castle, Delaware.
“She liked living a quiet life and then her husband got sick and that occupied her time 24/7. He died in 1996,” her sister-in-law said. “She seldom talked about her show business days.”
For the past 15 years Mrs. Tropea lived in Columbia at Lorien Health, as she slowly sank into Alzheimer’s disease, with her show business career growing into a faint and unrecognizable memory.
“Whenever she got agitated, the staff would put on a Frank Sinatra tape and she’d calm right down,” Mrs. Scheihing said. “Someone gave her a Frank Sinatra album and she’d point to the pictures, but could no longer really connect.”
A graveside service for Mrs. Tropea will be held at 1 p.m. Oct. 5 at Loudon Park Cemetery, 3620 Wilkens Ave., Baltimore.